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The immortal Frank Sinatra

The first true teen idol

David Bennun | August 12th 2015

Born a hundred years ago this December, and 17 years dead, Frank Sinatra is still very much with us. You can even go and see him – or a spectral, projected version of him – at the London Palladium. “It’s not other people doing Frank,” says his daughter Nancy, in a plug for the show. “It’s Frank doing Frank.” But it’s not simply Sinatra the singer or Sinatra the showman who has been so significant: his work, his voice and his style are so instantly recognisable that little more needs to be said about them. What’s more important is the kind of star he was.

Sinatra was the first true teen idol of the mass-media era – and without teen idols, the last seven decades of popular culture would be unimaginably different. In this, as in so many things, timing was crucial. Frank Sinatra’s stardom was something that could not have existed until the point that it did – until the elements were all in place, most crucially the huge popularity of radio. Had it not been Sinatra who became what he did, it would have been somebody else. But it was Sinatra.

Beatlemania was not the first phenomenon of its type, nor was the hysteria that greeted the young Elvis Presley. Our image of those crowds of screaming girls comes from cameras that panned across their massed numbers and picked out their personal dissolutions into frenzy. The reason we don’t have the same image of the Bobby soxers – the young women who went doolally for Sinatra in the 1940s – is that they usually weren’t recorded in the same way. They certainly behaved in the same way, but we picture them chiefly in still, soundless images. It helps to look instead at a work of fiction: Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic film “The Godfather”, specifically the scene in which Don Corleone’s solemn business of the day is disrupted by uncontrollable girlish screams as the singing star Johnny Fontane (understood to be a dramatic avatar of Sinatra) arrives at the wedding party for the Don’s daughter. Sinatra was not the old-school antithesis of Elvis and the Beatles, destined to be swept away by their arrival via some mythic process of cultural inevitability; he was their prototype, their harbinger, the figure who opened the door through which they swaggered or scampered.

What was Sinatra’s particular charm? He wasn’t the first crooner of his type, by a long chalk. Nor was he outstandingly handsome, by the standards of the day; he was often mocked for his skinniness, deeply unfashionable at a time when Charles Atlas’s advertisements promised to transform you from the kind of “97-pound weakling” shunned by women and bullied by beefier fellows. But he had what all his successors in the male teen-idol role have possessed: a boyish magnetism which appealed precisely because it bypassed all but its key audience. As the blues artist Willie Dixon once sang: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”

This effect is always multiplied by its shared experience: one girl mightn’t have screamed at Sinatra, but thousands together did. It first manifested itself when he was the support act to the great swing clarinetist Benny Goodman in December 1942, at New York’s Paramount Theatre. “I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in,” said the entertainer Jack Benny. To sustain the febrile media coverage, Sinatra’s PR people duly hired a handful of girls to scream at him at subsequent shows: “But we needn't have… the hundreds more we didn't hire screamed even louder. It was wild, crazy, completely out of control.” Two years later came the “Paramount riot”, when over 30,000 delirious fans were excluded from a venue that seated little more than one-tenth of that number.

It’s remarkable how many other innovations one may credit Sinatra with. He wasn’t the first star to straddle mass media: the most plausible candidate for that accolade is Bing Crosby – once, unlikely as it may now seem, Sinatra’s great rival – who was simultaneously a titan of musical recording, broadcasting and the box office in the 1940s. Crosby’s appeal was cross-generational; Sinatra, hamstrung by demographics, saw his star fade as his audience aged, and revived his career by his leap into movie roles. It’s a move that stars with a teen fanbase have attempted to replicate ever since, with varying success – Presley, for instance, was ill-served by his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, in that regard, less in the idea than in its tawdry execution. Sinatra sought out and won prestigious Hollywood roles (and “The Godfather” offers a sinister account of how he did so); Parker stuck Presley into cheap and exploitative vehicles. Done right, this is a trick that can remake a career entirely. How often is the actor Mark Wahlberg recalled as the frontman of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch? Sinatra, of course, ran his film career in parallel to his musical one; he had an extraordinary talent that he never betrayed by abandoning it for another medium.

Sinatra was also among the first major music stars to launch his own label – Reprise, in 1960 – on which many of his most celebrated releases appeared. Today, in (aptly) reprised form, it makes up a key part of the Warner Music Group. And Sinatra has even proved a quite inadvertent innovator. In a recent article for Slate, on the prevalence of songs in the current charts credited to one artist while “featuring” another, Chris Molanphy makes an interesting observation: America’s very first top ten, in 1940, was led by the single “I’ll Never Smile Again”, credited to the big-band leader Tommy Dorsey, with a vocal by his in-house singer, Frank Sinatra.

“Elvis didn’t die,” Parker told reporters in 1977. “The body did... This changes nothing.” Sinatra outlived Presley by two decades, but the notion of an endless career driven by constant reinvention surely relied on Sinatra’s example. Sinatra’s still here. Maybe he’ll be here when we’re all gone too, the first of the mass-media immortals.

Sinatra: The Man and His Music London Palladium, booking until October 10th

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